The south east of England is now officially in a state of drought, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said.
Water firms have been warning that a series of drought restrictions across England looks inevitable, as a summit took place on 20 February, hosted by Defra.
Key players from the water industry are seeking permission to introduce draconian measures to tackle worst drought crisis in 30 years. The expectation is that many water firms in the south of England will make applications to restrict supplies in as little as four weeks.
Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, is meeting with representatives from the Environment Agency, British Waterways, the Met Office and various environmental and agricultural NGOs while urging the public to “use water wisely”.
The chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, urged “all water users – especially farmers, businesses and water companies – to plan carefully how they store, use and share water.”
Despite being renowned for its wet weather some areas of Britain have seen abnormally low levels of rainfall over the last few years. In the year to September 2011 the Midlands saw the driest 12 month period since records began in 1910, and last summer saw drought declared in many areas of central and eastern England.
At the time Spelman warned: “Unfortunately, if we have another dry winter, there is a high risk that parts of the country will almost certainly be in drought next summer – so it’s vital we plan ahead to meet this challenge.”
Across England this winter has been the driest since 1972, and the Environment Agency has warned that conditions this year could be as bad as the drought that swept the country in 1976. The last major drought crisis in that year saw people queuing in the streets for water from standpipes and the devastation of large areas of farmland.
Thames Water released a statement saying that: “It’s now not a case of whether we'll be having a drought this year, it's a case of when and how bad.”
Currently Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and West Norfolk are ‘in drought’.
Shropshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Sussex and Kent are deemed to be at risk.
Many water companies are expected to file for Drought Orders and Drought Permits from the Environment Agency which allow for the sourcing of water from previously restricted sources and the implementation of water restrictions for consumers.
The most widely known of these restrictions are the unpopular hosepipe bans. Trevor Bishop, the head of the Environment Agency’s Water Resources Department said that “If (the water companies) go for Drought Permits and Drought Orders from spring onwards then the normal procedure is to bring in restrictions like hosepipe bans.” Although none are in place at the moment they are likely to be introduced in areas hardest-hit by drought.
Compounding the effects of drought are water management issues. The water companies that are responsible for managing and delivering water supplies have come under fire for the vast amounts of water that are lost through leaks every year. The latest figures published by the water industry regulator Ofwat show that despite a year-on-year decrease almost 3.3 billion litres of water, enough to meet the needs of 20% of the British population, are still lost each year.
Defra are also working closely with the agricultural industry in an effort to improve irrigation technology and develop more water efficient crops.
The effects of climate change are expected to worsen the drought situation in Britain as the temperature rises and rainfall decreases further.
Below are the areas most at risk of hosepipe bans this summer having already been declared 'in drought' or deemed 'at risk':